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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Law - Indiana-born civil rights lawyer Thomas Atkins dies

In an article today in the South Bend Tribune, Laureen Fagan, writes:

Elkhart native and nationally prominent civil rights lawyer Thomas I. Atkins used to say that power was colorless.

"It's like water. You can drink it or you can drown in it," he'd say.

And when Atkins died Friday at age 69, that was one of the memorable quotes used by the Boston Globe to honor the man who came to their city to attend Harvard Law School, stayed to become the first black to hold a Massachusetts Cabinet post, was president of the city's NAACP chapter -- and argued the landmark Boston school desegregation case.

The story includes a photo:
A Tribune file photo taken from the IU yearbook shows Atkins at his desk in 1961 after he became the student body's first black president, also a first for any Big Ten school.
I remember, I was an IU undergrad at the time.

The Boston Globe had a long obituary June 29th that began:

Thomas I. Atkins, a hard-driving champion of racial justice who rose from rural Indiana to become Boston's first black at-large city councilor and faced off against opponents of busing in the 1970s as an NAACP leader, has died at 69.

The Harvard Law School graduate knew that access to education had enabled his rise and fought to secure opportunities for others, first in Boston and later in desegregation cases across the country.

"He was clearly the most brilliant and insightful civil rights lawyer, both in and beyond Boston, to take on the challenges of school desegregation," said Ted Landsmark, who worked with Mr. Atkins in the late 1970s as a lawyer at Mr. Atkins's Boston law firm, Atkins and Brown. "He was a great humanist."

Mr. Atkins died Friday night at a nursing home in Brooklyn, N.Y., after struggling for nearly two decades with the degenerative muscular disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

He was a humanist, but he also had a steely resolve. As a central figure in the city during a turbulent era, he received repeated death threats. He fortified his Roxbury home to protect his family, running chicken wire over windows to block Molotov cocktails and installing spigots throughout the seven- bedroom house to connect hoses for fighting fires, said his son Thomas Jr.

The Globe published this editorial on July 1. Some quotes:
THOUGH HE was a native of Elkhart, Ind., Thomas I. Atkins, a civil rights lawyer who combined sharp intellect and political muscle, mastered the art of Boston politics. Atkins, the city's first black at-large city councilor, died Friday at age 69.

Atkins's election in 1967 was, in part, a function of the increase in the city's black population, which had climbed to about 90,000 that year. But he also ran well in white working-class neighborhoods where he reached out for votes in local barrooms considered hostile territory by many minorities.

Atkins could be brash, even pushing his way into Harvard Law School long after the application deadline. But there was always an analytical underpinning to his actions, whether fighting for school desegregation nationwide in his role as general counsel for the NAACP or arguing on behalf of Boston neighborhoods threatened by short-sighted urban renewal policies.

Boston has seen more fiery civil rights leaders than Atkins. But none smarter or more strategic.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on July 2, 2008 04:09 PM
Posted to General Law Related